Main Street: All They're Cracked Up To Be
Pecan Shelling Plant
10003 False River Rd.
New Roads, LA 70760
Through the northerly window of a white-concrete office building, Lester Bergeron Jr. keeps an eye on his orchard -- and the competition. A branch creaks; a silent shadow skims the ground, and another few pecans vanish into the furred cheek of a squirrel. "You got to get to the nuts before the animals get 'em," says Bergeron, 55, the third-generation CEO of H.J. Bergeron Pecan Shelling Plant, in New Roads, La. "Of course, it's squirrels and blackbirds that planted a lot of these trees in the first place."
The trees in question -- 125 feet high with brawny trunks and abundant, verdant limbs -- yield less than 1% of Bergeron's pecans, the nuts to reckon with in this praline-proud state. The $7-million company buys most of its product from small groceries and seed stores that aggregate the hauls of local farmers. In October, with the harvest revving up and the holidays imminent, "we're shelling seven days a week, 24 hours a day," says Bergeron. The pecans -- 6 million pounds annually -- leave the plant in bags destined for supermarkets and in 3- and 30-pound boxes that are sold to consumers and candy manufacturers, respectively.
But first: the shelling. Employees load the nuts into cracking machines that press down on both ends until the oblong shells split. Newly vulnerable, the pecans continue their odyssey through shellers, blowers, and sorters until they emerge, at last, cleaner, drier, and 65% lighter than they went in. "If there's some off-grade, the machine will knock the bad stuff into a back barrel," says Bergeron. "The good ones come out the front."
The plant has been updated many times since 1945, when Bergeron's father, Lester, and his uncle, Bennett, came home from World War II and built it next to the family's general store. As a child, Bergeron recalls, he would sit outside with his cousin Steve and munch moon pies and quaff Barq's root beer while watching the False River laze by. Bergeron's grandfather, Horace Joseph, who opened the store in 1909, sold pecans straight from the barrel. The boys would take two at a time in the palms of their hands. Then they'd squeeze them together until the shells broke.
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